The Kid Who Can’t Grow Up and Doesn’t Want To by Von Del Chamberlain

Bryce Canyon Looking Up, Bettymaya Foott

“The intent was not to present formalized astronomy, but rather to employ the most basic astronomy to give visitors a more holistic exposure to the beauty and deeper relationships between earth and sky.”

And so the man, but still a kid down inside, embarked on one of the most important journeys of his life – really more a quest than a journey. He became absorbed with the opportunity people at parks and other outdoor visitation places had. He was sure that they had a much better chance of helping people learn about the cosmos in parks than he did in planetariums.
While on a family vacation in the summer of 1971 he introduced what he called “sky interpretation” to a few National Parks – Rocky Mountain National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim). Sky Interpretation became, for him, akin to preaching the gospel of introducing basic astronomy to people out in nature. The intent was not to present formalized astronomy, but rather to employ the most basic astronomy to give visitors a more holistic exposure to the beauty and deeper relationships between earth and sky.

Then in 1972 he used a sabbatical from Michigan State University for a more formalized program at a dozen parks (Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Canyon, Glen Canyon, Zion Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, Craters of the Moon, Crater Lake, Modoc Lava Beds, Mount Rainier, Olympus and Glacier). At Canyon de Chelly Lloyd Jacklin, Chief of Interpretation, took him into the canyons to see what were being called “Planetarium sites” with groups of stars painted on ledge overhangs, and rock shelters. Thus began a more serious interest in Native American ethnoastronomy.

Chaco Fajada, Bettymaya Foott

At Chaco Canyon that interest intensified. Watching Fajada Butte, a lone bluff standing majestically in the mouth of the canyon, our “Colorado Plateau kid” kept thinking that this was a most likely place where ancient people might have gone to make critical observations for calendar keeping and other reasons. The park superintendent told him and his two older boys how to climb the butte where they found rock art, including the spiral petroglyph that would become the famous “Sun Dagger” a year or so later. When they returned to the superintendent’s home the two younger boys came running out shouting, “we made a damage!” Dreading what might have happened, the hikers followed the pair of youngsters into the driveway where the boys were pointing at a tiny replica of a puebloan ruin made of small rocks held together with mud as they shouted in unison, “see, we made a damage.”

Hoping that they might have clear dark night skies, they had carefully scheduled the times for visiting these places. In preparation for this trip they had asked what kind of weather they might expect. One park answered, “don’t worry, about weather, we haven’t had a drop of rain in months.” However, they drove into the area amid flashing lightning and resounding thunder. People began jokingly thanking them for bringing the first rain of the season. Meeting other family in his hometown our “Kanab kid” told his brother about the bad weather they had encountered. As they attended church together when the invocation expressed thanks for the recent moisture, the brother whispered, “They are thanking the wrong person.”

The sky interpretation training program continued at many additional parks in the following years. As part of the effort five issues of a Sky Interpretation Resource Bulletin were published and distributed to interested parks. The bulletins suggested ideas to make the sky part of any park scene and included lists of astronomers from various universities and observatories who were willing, indeed eager, to visit parks and present programs to staff and visitors.

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